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An Education in Stone

May 24, 2012

When an educational institution founds itself on the idea of forward thought, it follows that any design project undertaken by that institution must challenge conventional mindsets and exemplify an innovative attitude toward the future. So when The Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y. began a sizable expansion of its campus back in 2008, it looked to embody its founding precepts of interdisciplinary, integrated thinking and global engagement in the new facilities.

Co-founder Courtney Ross’ vision of fusing Western and Eastern cultures (particularly those of Japan) in the designs meant that stone would play an integral role in the new buildings. “In Japanese culture, rocks are a popular design element, so naturally stone became one of the main themes on the campus,” says Yaki Miodovnik, principal at Andropogon, the landscape architectural firm responsible for The Ross School’s major designs.

“Learning experiences are bolstered by thinking about and appreciating the places in which the students cohabitate,” Miodovnik adds. “The concept of a place where students coexist in an enjoyable environment, while at the same time learning from it, made our involvement doing landscape design work for the school both fun and exciting.”

Inspired by a deep knowledge of science and technology, and an intense commitment to ecological design, Miodovnik frequently directs projects involving unusual or difficult environmental challenges. In this case, the challenge was to make sure that the structure of the buildings was as environmentally friendly as possible—not only in practice, but visually as well.

There were many contributors associated with the design decisions for The Ross School, but Andropogon’s core approach was one of “total sustainability,” a mindset shared by all partners at the firm. The initial foundation for the design work came from the seminal text Design with Nature, which was written by famed landscape architect Ian McHarg (who members of Andropogon also studied under when he taught at the University of Pennsylvania).

The book’s message of understanding the importance of mankind’s place within nature was used as a “guide” for the design team, leading them to emphasize a healthier relationship between the two in their designs. “We did a lot of research to figure out the topography of the site,” says Miodovnik. “The goal was to bring the indoors and outdoors together.”

The strategy used to ensure the meshing of the outside and inside was to study, match and specify stone products that were part of the area’s natural habitat, an example being the texture and color of nearby beaches or existing boulders on campus. In order to make Ross’ overall architectural design vision a reality, Richard Cooke, the architect who worked on the school’s building designs, specified natural stone material from Champlain Stone, LTD of Warrensburg, N.Y., which matched the “look” of the school’s surroundings.

In order to further blur the line between indoor and outdoor, over 1,100 tons of six different styles of South Bay quartzite were used for everything from paving, terraces, site walls and patio areas to interior flooring, cladding for the buildings and an auditorium. The project utilized all of the stone with one common purpose: to keep the look of the environment, both inside and out, organic and natural.

“It took us quite some time to find the correct stone in texture and look for the project,” Miodovnik recalls. “We wanted it to be a seamless transition from our buildings to the surroundings.”

One of the major structures of the project that called for specific stonework was The Ross School’s Wellness Building on its Upper Campus in East Hampton. In keeping with the overall theme of the larger project, the aim was to make the forest and building coexist as one entity. A defining characteristic of the new building is the auditorium, which features a large glass wall open to the woods, creating the feeling of actually sitting in the forest.

The terraces of the building were designed to be used as outdoor classrooms, and South Bay Quartzite was selected specifically because it reflects light rather than absorbs it, brightening up outdoor spaces to create effective, alternative learning environments.

In order to help natural light filter all the way down to the basement of the building, according to Miodovnik, “The forest tree line could not exceed 35 feet in height. This way, sunlight could not be blocked out by the forest, and the reflective natural stone allowed the sunlight to dance its way down into the bottom of the building for an all-natural ambience.”

By the time The Ross School’s stonework was completed, the goal of creating beautiful buildings that conveyed the school’s philosophies of innovation and ecological sensitivity was more than accomplished. From matching outdoor stone amphitheaters with the look of indoor classrooms to having natural birdbaths positioned in large boulders on the periphery of the school, the designers were able to create a sustainable, integrated environment that “must be experienced firsthand to appreciate,” says Miodovnik. “No description or photos could ever attempt to adequately describe the joy which The Ross School environment brings out in everyone.”


Ron Treister is the president and owner of Communicators International, a marketing communications firm with a strong niche in the ceramic tile and stone industry headquartered in Portland, Maine, with satellite offices in Chicago and Springfield, Mo. Chris Keating is Communicators International's account coordinator.